The Craigslist Test of the Value of a B.A.: Introduction to The Education of Millionaires

The already-questionable connection between academic excellence and preparation for success in life and career became all the more questionable during the time I was writing this book, as the Great Recession of 2008–10 unfolded. As I was writing, a rash of articles came out in a number of major publications in which Americans expressed rage about their inability to earn sufficient money, given their expensive academic education. The bargain used to be: give up four years of your life (or more for graduate school), incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition, debt, and forgone earnings during the years you study, and when you graduate you’ll be set for life earnings-wise.

People who entered into this bargain four or five years ago are beginning to realize that only half the bargain has held up: the half in which they spend four years, incur up to $100,000 in debt, and forgo earnings they would have gained in the workforce during their years of study. The other half of the bargain, in which they were virtually guaranteed a job with a great salary upon graduation, has vanished.

An article in the New York Times, called “No Longer Their Golden Ticket,” covered the tidal wave of recent law school graduates, often carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt, who can’t find jobs. For those who were lucky enough to find or retain employment during the recent colossal shakeout in the legal profession, “it is harder to maintain that sense of esteem now that your contract work is being farmed out to low-cost lawyers in Bangalore, and your client who is splitting up with her spouse can handle it herself with a $31.99 do-it-yourself divorce kit from Office Depot.”

Beyond the grim scene for recently minted JDs, MBAs, MAs, and PhDs, the picture was no brighter for fresh college graduates. We now live in an age when it is likely that the person pouring you your coffee at the café in the morning has spent four years studying literature, or even business and marketing, in a degree-granting institution. That person is likely to be carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and more in credit card debt accrued in college, for the privilege of having studied to pour you your coffee with such literary and business acumen.

A New York Times article entitled “Jobs Wanted, Any Jobs at All” describes Katie and Kerry Barry, twins who were then seventeen months past their Rutgers graduation, as living in “an unwelcome continuum of mass rejection.” The twins had collectively applied to 150 jobs: “a magazine for diabetics, a Web site about board games and a commercial for green tea-flavored gum; fact-checking at Scholastic Books, copy editing for the celebrity baby section of, road-tripping for College Sports Television. They did not get any of these. More than a year has lapsed without so much as an interview. Apparently, even a canned response was impossible in New York.”

While the recent bust times will have hopefully passed by the time this book comes out [Michael’s note: um… wishful thinking!], more and more people of all ages are beginning to question traditional assumptions about how to make a mark in the world. Throughout most of last century, large bureaucratic organizations dominated the path of social mobility, from school age to retirement. If you wanted to be successful and have an impact, you studied hard in high school, got into a good college, got an entry-level job at a large corporate or government bureaucracy, and rose through the ranks of middle management.

It is now widely understood that the latter portion of this timeline—getting an entry-level job and rising through the ranks of middle management at a large bureaucracy—is no longer the best way to do things, for two reasons.

First, job security is dead, as anyone who has had a job recently knows. You’re going to have many different jobs, employers, and even careers in your life. So where you get your first, entry-level one—the single thing that a BA credential really helps with—becomes less and less relevant. Building a portfolio of real-world results and impacts you’ve created, over time, becomes more and more relevant.

Second, the Internet, cell phones, and virtually free long-distance calling have created new opportunities for flexible, self-created, independent careers; this trend has been helped along by the gathering storms of millions of hungry, highly educated young men and women in India, China, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and elsewhere, happy to do the work that entry-level Organization Men would have done in years past, for a fraction of the cost. This emerging competition has encouraged many people in the West to “think outside the organization” to create careers for themselves that can’t be outsourced, offshored, or automated.

More and more Americans of all ages are waking up to the reality that you don’t need a nine-to-five job to be a valuable, contributing member of society and to create wealth for yourself and others. Millions of small-business owners, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, graphic designers, independent consultants, writers, and freelancers make valuable contributions to society (creating four out of ten new jobs in the economy), outside the realm of working for a boss nine to five (or eight to eight).

Until the last decade, the kinds of opportunities that got you ahead in the world—medicine, law, engineering, or rising up through the ranks of a large corporation—were all guarded by “gatekeepers” who checked your formal credentials vigorously before letting you in.

There were very few other ways to get ahead. The zeitgeist is changing, however. While the classic professions still require credentials, for young people today these professions are no longer the only (and certainly not the hottest) avenues toward social advancement, economic opportunity, and making a difference in the world.

A new breed of American is arising, and they are creating a new breed of opportunity. For them, the American Dream still includes a wonderful family life, a home, and financial security. But it does not include waking up each day and going to work for a boss. They want to work for themselves, creating value for other people on their terms—perhaps on a Wi-Fi-connected laptop from a mobile location.

These people, young and old, read books like The Four-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Tim Ferriss, Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur by Pamela Slim, and Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love by Jonathan Fields.

Daniel Pink, in Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, his 2001 book prophesying the current tidal wave of microentrepreneurialism, small business, and self-employment, calls them “self-employed knowledge workers, proprietors of home-based businesses . . . freelancers and e-lancers, independent contractors and independent professionals, micropreneurs and infopreneurs, part-time consultants . . . on-call troubleshooters, and full-time soloists.”

These new kinds of opportunities, open to anyone who wants to pursue them, without any formal, traditional, or academic qualifications necessary to compete, have arisen largely because of technology. As Pink points out in Free Agent Nation, there was a time in our nation’s history, before the Industrial Revolution, when most people were self-employed—that is, “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.” In these times, writes Pink, mass self-employment made sense because “most of the things people needed to earn their living they could buy easily and keep at home.” However, writes Pink, “it was only when these things—the means of production, to use Karl Marx’s famous phrase—became extremely expensive . . . that large organizations began to dominate. . . . Capital and labor, once so intertwined the distinction scarcely mattered, became separate entities. Capitalists owned the equipment. Laborers earned their money by receiving a sliver of the enormous rewards those giant machines produced.”

Pink argues that in the last decade, in one area of the economy—called “knowledge work”—a shift has occurred as massive and with implications as far-reaching as those during the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. For knowledge workers in the developed world, the tools of their trade have become so ridiculously cheap that the “means of production” have once again become affordable to individual workers. These workers no longer have to depend on bosses or large organizations to furnish them with the means of production. They can quit the factory-style organizations and become “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers” once again—that is, digitally connected entrepreneurs and solo-preneurs.

Pink calls it “Digital Marxism: In an age of inexpensive computers, wireless handheld devices, and ubiquitous low-cost connections to a global communications network, workers can now own the means of production.” And increasingly, more and more of them (especially younger ones who have grown up with the Internet) are deciding to take their means of production, strike out on their own with their copy of The Four-Hour Workweek in their laptop bag, and flip a big, bad massive bird to their former employers.

And here’s something else these self-employed people, small-business owners, and micropreneurs are starting to realize more and more: for them, formal educational credentials are irrelevant to the new economic reality they are operating in.

In this new reality, no one gives a damn where you went to college or what your formal credentials are, so long as you do great work. I’m not saying we’re all the way there yet. But it’s clearly the way we’re headed. As science fiction writer William Gibson said, “The future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Education is still necessary to learn how to do the great work that gets you paid. But these days, almost all of the education that ends up actually earning you money ends up being self-education in practical intelligence and skills, acquired outside of the bounds of traditional educational institutions.

I asked Bryan if he felt he learned more starting up his businesses during and after school than he did during school. “Oh, my God. There’s no question,” he answered. “It would be the difference between a very well-planned seven-course meal done by one of the world’s top nutritionists, and compare that in nutritional value to a gumdrop.”

Let’s say you want to eat the seven-course meal done by one of the world’s top nutritionists, rather than the gumdrop.

This book provides you with a guide for acquiring key success skills you are very unlikely to learn in college. These are the real-world skills the self-educated millionaires I interviewed in my book all focused on learning, instead of abstract academic skills.

The typical college education consists of thirty-two courses—four courses a semester for eight semesters. The courses in The Education of Millionaires consists of consists of seven key areas of lifelong self-study. These courses can and should be followed in addition to (before, during and after) your traditional formal schooling in a classroom. But these aren’t like normal college courses. Here are some key differences.

Normal college courses are . . . Courses in The Education of Millionaires are . . .

While these courses can be interesting, edifying, and enlightening, very little of the content bears any useful relationship to confronting your goals, dreams, problems, and challenges in life outside of the class.


Course content is directly related to helping you tackle challenges, achieve goals, solve problems, and reach for your dreams in your career and personal life beyond the course.

Focused on Your Achievement in the Course. 

In a typical college course, grading becomes the focus of the course, with little attention paid to how the object of the grading relates to your life outside of the course. If my Marxist and postmodernist professors were to turn the barrel of their lingo away from capitalism and instead point it at their own noses, they’d say the grades had become “reified” and turned into a “fetish,” a “simulacrum” of reality. And who wants that?

Focused on Your Achievement in Your Life. 

There are no grades in these courses. Your “grade” is the results you get in your actual life. If you get the job you want, you’re doing well in the course. If your small business starts making tons of money, you just passed the test with flying colors. If your dream guy or girl says “yes” to a date (or a proposal of marriage), you just got an A. Your success is your results and achievement in the real world. Period. There are no formalized, abstract evaluations of the material.

Evaluated by Bystanders with Nothing at Stake. 

Your college professor may have exacting, thoughtful, careful standards on how she tests you, grades you, and evaluates you in the course. But ultimately, she’s not the one who’s going to hire you. She’s not the one who’s going to buy your product. She’s not the one who’s going to pull out her wallet and invest in your idea. She’s not the one who’s going to say yes to a date. (Well, actually, I have some stories about that one . . .) Her opinions about how you should develop are like the opinions about military tactics offered among the gentlemen and women who watched Civil War battles from hilltop picnics.

Evaluated by People in the Real World. 

Since your “grades” are simply your results in the real world, your progress is being evaluated by people who’ve got skin in the game—who’ve got something to lose if you fuck it up. You’re getting feedback in your course progress all the time by customers, employers, social connections, and loved ones. The feedback you get is vastly more meaningful.

Bound by Four Months. 

In the context of a lifetime, four-month courses are to real learning as Big Macs wolfed in the car between appointments are to fine dining. You can learn a lot in four months, but anything truly worth learning takes a lifetime to master. So why do we cram most of our higher learning into a four-year period, and then select for that four-year period an age range when many people seem more concerned with guzzling shots and learning what condoms and beer bongs are good for?

Bound by the Cradle and the Grave. 

This book just points the way; it is not the way itself. Welcome to the new lifelong learning. You don’t “graduate” from any of these courses. But also, you’re not stuck to cramming all of your “higher learning” into four years between ages eighteen and twenty-two. You get to enjoy the pleasure and fruits of study and learning throughout your life, at a realistic, comfortable pace, without having to cram for finals, give up career earnings while you study, or take out student loans. Take the pointers I give you below as jump-off points—but ultimately, you’re going to have to find most of your learning materials and teachers for these courses on your own, during the rest of your life.


Next: The Seven Key Skills of The Education of Millionaires

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

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  • Reply E August 18, 2011 at 4:02 AM

    I left school when I was 15 yet my last two roles were Operations Manager. The only thing I lack is the inside language of business.
    Unfortunately it’s an employers market here in New Zealand where, like your friend Bryan’s experience above, there are 200 applications or more for every job advertised. The process of elimination is tertiary and industry qualifications. If you have neither, you’re instantly binned.
    Most of my roles have been with ‘Bryans’ who can see through the type and value life experience (of which I have a Masters) over letters after a name. The Bryans are always more honest in their communication, realistic in their expectations and thoughtful in their rewards and I will happily wait years between Bryans for these very reasons.

    I really enjoy your writing style and have had similar life experiences to you (sans TC!) so I’m looking forward to reading your book. Have you thought of releasing it as an audio book? That seems to be how I do all of my reading these days. (Truth is that audio books on my MP3 player makes the mundane events in life such as going to the gym and housework more entertaining!!)
    Can’t wait to see what you come out with next…

  • Reply Beth Barany August 18, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    Not many people know this but I dropped out of college for a break of a year and a half. I lived and worked in Paris and started my writing career there, with persistence and more persistence, until the editor finally said yes to publishing one of my articles. But only after I came to his office to pitch him face to face. I did go back to finish my degree, well almost. I didn’t complete the final paper for many years. I learned more out of school than I ever did in school. And school never taught me how to succeed in business. Bryan did. Looking forward to your book, Michael.

  • Reply SG August 19, 2011 at 5:43 AM

    Good article Michael. Street smarts and book smarts, as well as smarts in general versus motivation to succeed, are entirely different things. I commented recently on this subject in a recent post:

  • Reply @BrianHoffstein August 26, 2011 at 6:15 PM


    As someone going into his senior year at Claremont Mckenna College, I can only say it feels like this book was written for me.

    I share many of the same sentiments you have expressed, and am very eager to explore in depth the ideas you mentioned in this introduction.

    I just pre-ordered the book to my kindle, and look forward to its release.

    Best wishes and good luck,


  • Reply Marian Schembari August 30, 2011 at 8:36 AM

    I cannot WAIT until this book comes out. It’s already epic.

  • Reply Genius Intelligence August 31, 2011 at 9:22 PM

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  • Reply Kashif September 2, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Adding to your point of Academic Intelligence vs Practical Intelligence, I think Home Schooling is the way to raise kids rather than sending them to schools with herd mentality.

    • Reply Stephen Sadowski September 10, 2011 at 5:59 AM

      I would have to agree with you with the small caveat that an unschooling approach to home schooling is optimal for releasing the creativity and boundless energy of youth. A great resource for kids that are stuck in high school is Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook, written in a similar vein to this one, i.e. succeeding outside of the walls of formal educational institutions.

  • Reply John Taumoepeau September 8, 2011 at 3:13 AM

    Awesome read……very though provoking. Where is education headed? Etc., Can’t wait for the book!

  • Reply I blurbed a book — The Education of Millionaires - UnCollege September 12, 2011 at 8:23 PM

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  • Reply Clarence October 3, 2011 at 2:02 AM

    Man I have been reading about Micheal and this book for two days!! This information comes at a very pivotial point in my life. I have a BA in English (class of 07) and I have not been able to find a job. I decided at the beginning of this year to go back to school and
    get a degree in design. I planned to go for a bachelors in this because I was told that employers want to see it. But I found out that I have almost spent all of my federal loan money on my first degree. I will only be able to get a associates. I was hurt. Then I checked my facebook feed on friday night and I felt better, I began to read about this Micheal Ellsberg and his book I will get it No Doubt!!

  • Reply Occupy your life. | October 17, 2011 at 12:27 PM

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  • Reply Joe Magnotti October 12, 2012 at 3:03 AM

    Not sure I agree with what you say here. Back in 2002, the economy was in the shitter and that’s the only reason the MBA would apply for a $10 an hour data entry job. Agreed that the economy is in the shitter again, but now is the time to take advantage of talent at a reduced price. I would make the argument that Bryan’s case is a bad example — not that education means much, but a history of success is what I look for when hiring. You rarely find that with a HIGH SCHOOL dropout. He should have leveraged the situation and found a better employee at a reduced cost. In the end it worked out, but most of the time it won’t.

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